30 July, 2010

The why of emotion, from whence did it come?

A recent article positing a theory for the origin of emotions as a system to induce cooperation got me to thinking about this subject which I've been mulling for quite some time recently in an effort to understand the requirements for building a truly stable Artificial Intelligence. A post from a few months back covers how emotion once emerged is used to tie emotional import to newly sensed memories while comparing those sensations to previously stored memories and the associated emotional triggers to them. Conditions like Kapgras syndrome highlight the unique role that deep brain regions like the hippocampus and the amygdala play in tying emotion to memory. The new study however knocks at the heart of the question, why do we have emotion in the first place? Why did it evolve? What necessity did it serve?

Fundamentally, we should be able to agree that our emotional system emerged to trigger the individual as to important occurrences in the surrounding, to serve as a stimulant to a given type of action when environmental signals trigger those reactions because doing so is beneficial in some way to the individual (before social systems emerged there were individuals!). It is beneficial either by being outwardly pleasurable or by enabling us to avoid being eaten or being crushed by a falling tree.

When we look at the mammalian brain we see this hierarchy of emotional controls in the location of the machinery, deep in the mid brain associated with the hippocampus and amygdala...which it just so happens also form a critical tie point for the processing of long term memories.

I don't see this as a coincidence, I think the architecture of the brain points us toward the causation factors for the emergence of the guiding signals that I believe emotions are.

Stepping away from the mammalian brain let's look at a brain that is ostensibly very different from ours, the reptilian brain...and what do we see? that the differences aren't so "very" at all...in fact, architecturally the reptilian brain looks a lot like the mammalian brain minus the large fleshy neo cortex...it seems to be mostly emotional response and sensory signal processing regions. This hints at the ancient evolutionary factors that shaped emotional development in humans and lead us to a different conclusion from that reached in this study. Rather than be a tool that emerged to elicit cooperation (an actively evolved feature) it was a tool that emerged to promote survival (a subtle but important generality from "elicit cooperation" that may in fact contain such actions as a subset) it is only later that this mechanism was co-opted to serve social purposes (like eliciting cooperation) ...we have evidence to support this view since reptiles are not very social animals, though large numbers of some species can live together few species form the networks of social hierarchy that mammals do thus cooperation as a factor for emotional development has no formative environment in the very family of animals that were precursors to the development of the mammalian mind!

So there is a catch 22 to that theory that I can't reason passed, also it seems more evolutionarily expedient for a simple chemical system to reward or punish behaviors to benefit individual survival before the development of social coercion even evolved and goes in line with what we see as a major difference between Reptiles (and Amphibians before them) and progressively Birds (not as old as Reptiles) and Mammals (not as old as Birds). I think these questions for the emergence of particular traits are best answered by comparative anatomy of animals at different stages in the evolutionary race...I admit a bias to this as being an engineer it only makes sense as a method to trace back the origins of various structures in the biology but it affords a unique view into finding possible answers to these questions which absent the engineering and systems view would seem entirely subjective and difficult to answer.

03 July, 2010

Lucky Earth

A random sample of the collection of improbable and mutually exclusive events that led to our emergence here on this rock.

If the Sun formed in a region with less or different gas contribution the Earth would likely have an ammonia Ocean instead of a water one.

If the proto planetary disk didn't have so much accreted asteroids and comets proto Earth would not have gained so much water and would likely be dry.

If the Earth didn't accrete as much dust as it did, we'd have a smaller radius and likely not have a radioactive active core..the active core is what produces our magnetic field and thus protects us from the deadly solar wind of the sun. Life would not exist.

If the proto Earth had not been struck by another body just before 4.4 billion years ago, the planet would not have reconstituted into the present Earth 2 + moon system. Without the gyroscopic stabilization of the moon against the distant but influential gravitational nudges of Jupiter we'd have no predictable seasons and life would have no way for evolution to consistently emerge complex life forms...Earth would have stayed a planet of bacteria.

It goes on an on...if the Anoxic transition didn't occur, if the planet was not subject to the great extinction of 240~ Mya that cleared the landscape for the emergence of the dinosaurs...if the KT asteroid didn't hit 65 million years ago and clear the way for the rise of mammals and grasses and Magnoliaphylum...it goes on and on

Each one if it didn't occur would eliminate us from the rock...the Universe doesn't care about our presence here and the fact that we are finding so many worlds now, in so many states of pathology underscores this fact. Swollen giants mere millions of miles from their parents stars, Giants at impossible distances away from their stars and soon rocky planets in all states of formation thanks to Kepler Sat. If there is a God it surely lost track of our development in the endless list of billions upon billions of planets that exist in this Galaxy in various states of formation of life in a visible Universe of over 100 billion Galaxies...the mind simply boggles.

02 July, 2010

My short walk in faith...

I was too inculcated into the ways of religion to seriously give it thought as being *unreal* until about the age of 9. My parents (read: my mother, my father was religiously apathetic) did a good job of taking us around to various prayer services with her evangelist friend who happened to be married to a pastor. Tangentially, I found out much later that he used to physically beat her in accordance with the scriptures he preached at the pulpit, now he's suffering from severe dementia induced by Alzheimer's disease. Karma? No...just bad luck. During those times I was forced to endure 3 hour long services that consisted of grown adults and their kids sat on white sheets in hot living rooms (many times our own) with their kids forced to pay attention (some how) to the constant singing, talking or Bible reading in Haitian Creole and French. I was partially curious about the various stories I'd read and wondered if they could be real, I was an avid comic book fan from an early age so the fantastic was not unfamiliar to me, in fact I relished it...and thinking that it could be real was actually exciting.

I started having my doubts when I was sent to Catholic school at 8, my mother didn't like the Public schools in Brooklyn (for obvious reason then) and the Catholic school system had a record of excellence...so despite the fact that she was not a Catholic (though she was until shortly after my birth) she allowed me and my younger brother to go to Catholic school. This experience was the second accelerator to my realizing all religion was likely wrong. In the Catholic school I learned about the unique and strange (relatively) rituals but also noticed the many similarities. During "religion" class I learned about Jewish rituals and holiday's Yarmulke's and Dreidel's, unleavened bread and Menorah's, Hanukkah and Passover...the context was all described in terms of the Catholic belief system and contrasted with the Protestant beliefs I was hearing espoused at home nicely. I became agnostic to religion early and focused instead on art and science my twin passions, I had an intense love of biology and was significantly influenced by the function of DNA...the self replicating molecules. To me they were machines that ran due to conservation of energy principles and needed no other mover, the question of their origin still loomed but less and less I saw any place for the need of the guiding hand of some conscious creator and the death knell to the entire idea was sounded once I started learning about Darwin around 11. So it is clear that religious education is necessary and required for the truth to bubble up, it is the contradictions that was able to see between the systems I was exposed to that led me down the path of investigating their foundations and realizing each one was a creation of Man to serve some purpose.

Back at home I also was influenced by the weird religious inculcation suffered by my cousin Jean, who was being raised as a Jehovah's witness. His mother bought a house 3 homes over from us and my siblings and I were constantly back and forth...I read "Awake" tracts as if they were comic books because I admired the art (it actually helped inspire me to improve my drawing) but the contradictions between the protestant, catholic and Jewish faiths I was learning made it certain that either one or all of them were wrong. I too stayed silent with my scientific agnosticism until my mid 20's and formerly announced my adherence to belief only supported by data as I gained my bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering (not a coincidence!) Since then I've learned so much more about evolutionary history, the origin of religious thought, how the brain promotes such thought for survival purposes and every other aspect of the physical world. The grand view of the world as it is without the limits of a creator is so far beyond the ideas of religious texts I just laugh....but on 9/11 I stopped laughing.

I felt and saw first hand what the dangers of religion left to fester down the blind allies of it's own dogma could do to people I knew and that was the end of "live and let live" when it came to religion for me. We are at a point where we are perfecting technology in genetics that should it fall into the wrong hands, a passionate zealot to some imaginary faith...the end of all life could result over night. Now is the time for us to say enough to the moderate views that religion is okay as long as every one stays to their corner...the problem is no one actually does. The only inoculation for religion is knowledge, of how the world really works and it is the obligation of all those who hold that knowledge to share it with those who don't but more importantly to explain why their current state of belief and reliance on "faith" is dangerous. I have spent a good part of the last few years trying to accelerate this spread of knowledge between people across language barriers. A passage from the Bible fueling my efforts:

"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from the, which they have imagined to do." Genesis 11:6

My solution is to flatten human communication by eliminating language as a barrier for social communication online. I hope to release this service by years end.

I've been fortunate and patient enough to have actually contributed to the enlightenment from deeply held religious views of some people...it is a minor mission in my life beyond my work as a software engineer and graphic designer. As we approach this time where any one can build a virus or bacteria from scratch in their basement it is important for all humanity to see all living things as precious beyond the rules put forward in bronze age dogma. To realize that the rice farmer in China has the same loves, wishes, dreams and desires as you and is entitled to the same basic happiness. That none of us are better than any other beyond the circumstances of life in which we are born. That even with life we share so much as to make it un-profound to say that we are brothers. Here on a lone island of life our planet as we know today we need to esteem life (all life) as more precious than any other resource before backward religious dogma leads zealots down a path of our destruction. I hope we succeed in time.

Accident: A view into the future of organ replacement...

Listen to the podcast: Accident:A view into the future of organ replacement.

Mira Chu is always in a rush, she got up today filled with particular excitement as it is her first day giving the inaugural speech at the Institute of Exoplanetary Studies. Mira joined the institute 3 years ago in 2045 and had been deep in her studies of the spectral characteristics of the 50 or so Earth class planets found decades previous by the Kepler Satellite mission. She was anxious to report her findings regarding the specific bio signatures emanating from 43 of those 50 worlds.

Unfortunately for Mira today, she tends to get her mind very wrapped up in her work and today was so focused on the talk that she failed tohttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif heed the pick up truck making a quick turn before the light as she charged across the intersection unaware that the light was about to switch. The truck struck her with more force than one would expect given the fact it was turning. She was knocked out of the intersection and into a light pole on the other side of the street, her side taking the brunt of the impact. Blunt force trauma can be particularly nasty on the internal organs. Mera's impact with the street pole caused her liver to immediately rupture, as individuals that witnessed the event rush to administer her aid and call ambulances Mira passes out...

In 2010 one of several advances that we'll soon see applied to aid Mira was made. A team of researchers was able to de-differentiate blood back to a stem cell state, which could then be re-differentiated to any other cell tissue type. This wasn't the first time such a process was performed, it had been done from skin and some other tissues as well in the previous couple of years. The technology was originally invented in 2006/7 and was dubbed iPSC (induced pluropotent stem cells) it quickly advanced as a method for creating stem cells from already differentiated somatic cells. The revolution that lay in this process was inherent in the fact that if you can coax a stem cell into various cell types you can watch the expression patterns of the dna genes activated between tissue types in the lab. It would be like having the biological equivalent of the "diff" function for document comparison tools. This would then allow researchers to quickly isolate the expressed genes that are unique to each cell type and determine how the stem cell triggers their differentiation "song"...once that is figured out per tissue type researchers would start looking at how each "song" plays in sequence to create developmental processes like the growth of a lung or a heart from the initial cellular seed. These advances were made quickly by 2017 researchers could coax any cell to become any other cell for a given period of time before dedifferentiating back to a stem like state using chemical markers. In 2022 all of the tissue types of the human body were genetically mapped using iPSC stem cell research methods. It was in 2017 however that the real fun started. If a cell could be differentiated to a specific tissue type could it be possible to trigger the developmental pathway of an entire organ? This research was started and by 2020 the first organ (a liver) was developed fully from a de-differentiated stem cell it was an achievement that ushered in the industry of organ replacement using ones own grown organ. It also meant the death of the previous industry of scaffold grown organs which prior to this advance was the only way (well that and the earlier mechanical organs...hearts,etc. of the previous century) to create artificial organs as using stem cells alone failed to trigger the developmental pathways of the organ growth process that produced the vascular and nervous systems of the organ, the new method activated the same developmental process that is activated in a growing fetus in the womb and so was complete with formation of all associated internal structures and geometry for the produced organ.

This takes us back to Mira, who now is in the back of an ambulance being treated for her wounds, the medics have determined she has severe internal hemorrhaging on her right side. As they notice her coming in and out of consciousness they rummage through her bag to find her organ insurance card. Once organs could be expressed in their full developmental glory in a vat of nutrients shortly after 2022, start ups sprang into action to try and satisfy the demand for facile access to organ replacements in case of accidents. The process of organ donor search had all but disappeared as people simply bought insurance with a company that would set up a plan with a client to allow them to purchase insurance and schedule a lab visit. At the lab the company would take a sample of the clients DNA using a cheek swab or a blood sample and then the researchers would de-differentiate the cells from the swab back to specific cell types(heart, lung, kidney, liver, skin, pancreas, bone) even specific bones could be regrown to specific developmental levels. Of course the insurance would charge additional rates for insuring more organs. Once the organs are matured they would be stored in life vats where they are kept in stasis for potential implantation at any time to the tissue donor. The rapid growth of organs would be achieved as direct oxygenation and providing of nutrients could be made, the organs would be pristine.

As the ambulance rushes to the nearest trauma facility, her information and the hospital where she is going to be treated is transmitted to the insurance company so they could be prepped to take her organs out of stasis. Shortly after arriving at the hospital and given triage it is determined that her liver is too badly damaged to be repaired in vivo and the call is made to have her insured liver copy shipped to her present location. Luckily her premium covers copies of her organs being available within 1 hour of her areas of defined areas of coverage. As the insurance company receives the call a helicopter is loaded with the pristine liver and begins it's trip the 178 miles to her hospital location, eta: 48 minutes.

The date is Tuesday, June 16th 2048 and Mira Chu is coming out of sedation. As she comes to, she sees her husband Andre looking down at her with a smile on his face. She fights the confusion of waking in a hospital bed for a few seconds and remembers what happened. She feels a slight bit of discomfort along her side and looks to notice the bandages around the area. She's glad to be alive, Andre leans forward and tells her she'll be just fine. She had the surgery for the liver replacement and it was routine, most such transplants are successful and there hasn't been a rejected organ from any recipient of the organs provided by the insurance companies since the inception of such services nearly 25 years earlier. Inside Mira's body her pristine liver is situating itself to the first body it has been a part of, the high efficiency and lack of exposure to disease like real organs makes transplanted organs particularly good at their functions. In fact they tend to be particularly robust to abuses of substances by their owners. In the case of the liver alcohol and a high Calorie diet, neither is a problem for Mira who was a teetotaler, though after this experience she might want to have a drink but at the moment, after realizing everything is okay all she can think about is giving her talk on the exoplanet bio-signatures, it is her only worry in the world.